Millersville University provides enrollment statistics every year in the form of an institutional research fact book. These statistics are publicly available and easy to access. Millersville students, however, represent much more than statistics on an Excel spreadsheet. As we consider minority experiences in this issue let us ask, “who are minorities and what does that mean?” Let the numbers show that there is no such thing as normal.
The concept of normal behavior seems to stem from the classic cliché: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Social interactions require a set system of rules and expectations to function daily. Following these rules makes one a team player and more likely to be accepted by the group, and grants access to the rewards that membership grants, but this normalcy only exists on paper. In reality, society has more than one faction and individual factions have their own codes, systems, and rulesets in place. People tend to act on tribal instincts. This is not objectively a bad thing, basic instincts kept cavemen alive and the lone wolf dies where the pack survives. If three people gather in a room, two factions spring forth naturally; but in a society of factions which one becomes the dominant authority that defines normal behavior?
Using Millersville University as an example, the numbers show that on average half of all freshmen entering Millersville scored between 500 and 600 on both the literacy and math sections of the SATs. That homogenizing figure is supported by the number of freshmen who ended high school in the top half of their graduating class at 65 percent. 80 percent of Millersville freshmen live in the dormitories, and zero percent of freshmen are over the age of 25, this year. The statistics show that most Millersville freshmen enter the school with similar experience levels and situations. So, are most freshmen what we would call normal?
According to the Institutional Effectiveness and Accountability department, who published the above figures, as of the 2017 Fall semester Millersville University had 26 academic departments across 5 colleges, 6 on-campus dormitories, and over 150 extra-curricular organizations to choose from. The campus was home to over 7,700 students, and an additional 1,351 freshmen have joined them this year. That is a lot of normalcy to work out of so many distinct groups. So, who decides what shared behavior is normal?
Normal is often defined in terms of behavior, feelings, or ways of thinking. All the categories and language of normalcy used to define it coincidentally describe mental health as well. Psychologists argue that person’s connection to society, or lack thereof, can often influence mental health. This means that ‘normal status’ is often mistaken for good mental health. Normal means many things to many different people but, as author and psychotherapist Eric Maisel, Ph.D. put it, “The matter of what is normal can’t be and must not be a mere statistical nicety.” Dr. Maisel has written over fifty books on the connection between defining normal behavior and mental health. In a 2011 article for Psychology Today he argues that, “If you leap from ‘I am distressed’ to ‘I am unhealthy’ you are leaping into the arms of the medical model, a place you do not want to plunge for no good reason.” Dr. Maisel thinks the definition of normalcy should stem from social comparison, not medical status.
Roughly half of all freshmen share similar levels of academic achievement and socioeconomic status. If we consider that the other half of that population do not share equal status to each other, then those similarly “traditional” freshmen are the majority. Except, even that majority appear increasingly, individually unique with each new category of consideration. Two freshmen may live in the dorms, have a meal plan, and be 19 years of age; but one might have enrolled as a Biology major and the other in a Music program. Those same two freshmen might be in the same major but not the same club, or sport, or social group. The vast variety of group choices available on day one of university existence means that there is no shared experience. After fifty years of study and fifty books about normalcy Dr. Maisel still asks his field, “If ‘normal’ mustn’t be ‘what we see the most of’ or ‘the absence of significant distress,’ how else might it be conceptualized or construed?”
The answer is that either no one knows, or there is no such thing as “normal.” All current student statistics can be found in the Millersville University Institutional Research Fact Book at http://www.millersville.edu/iea/ir